MEDIA BEFORE YOU: Sex, death … and Reading

Posted on March 8, 2010

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That got your attention, didn’t it? It snatched mine—not because I had never seen the advertisement from Sinclair Institute (“helping you achieve a better love life since 1991”), but b

ecause there it was, incongruously, on the back of the Mar. 7 New York Times book review. That real estate is usually claimed by Bauman Rare Books or Bose, the maker of pricy headphones and speaker systems.

At a time when the book review section looks distressingly cadaverous at 24 pages, any ad beats no ad. Moreover, there’s something bracing about the subliminal suggestion that reading is sexy. That is, until you realize that Sinclair is suggesting that if you’re reading the ad, you’re probably in need of help when it comes to lovemaking—in the way that stroke victims need rehab to learn how to walk again: “These videos show couples how to overcome sexual problems so common with middle age, including: erectile dysfunction … reentering the dating scene … and rekindling passion when sex has become boring or predictable.”

Another reminder, as if anybody needed one, that if you’re the kind of person who reads the book review section, you’re probably… old. It’s the same clap to the head you get while watching 60 Minutes or network news while having to endure all those ads for Cialis and Flomax. What’s next on the back page of the Times supplement, pitches from makers of respirators? Hospices?

What we ageing readers may lack in animal magnetism, we more than make up in marketing muscle. Older folks, 46 years and upwards, buy more books than any other age group. According to a year-plus old study—in Publishers Weekly, citing PubTrack Consumer, a unit of R.R.Bowker, owned by Reed Elsevier, the giant publisher and data peddler—seniors spent $3.2 billion in 2007 for 371 million books; boomers, $4.3 billion for 427 million hardbacks and paperbacks. The same report claims that Gen X shelled out $3.4 billion on 285 million titles; Gen Y, $2.7 billion for 180 million; and teens $655 million for 57 million books. Current and upcoming recipients of Social Security are keeping this dying business alive. Geezers are also taking to e-books faster and in greater numbers than younger folks. The Mar. 7 Book Review also has a full-page ad for the Amazon Kindle.

Still, it’s hard to shake the association between literacy and senescence. No wonder a lawyer friend of mine, who last year turned 50, shrinks from some of the books I recommend to him. Don Quixote, Moby-Dick, Anna Karenina, Middlemarch, Ulysses? “No,” he almost shouts, “they’re too long.” I used to think he was intimidated by their complexity or the sheer weight of lugging around a fat volume. Now I know the truth: He’s afraid he won’t live long enough to finish any one of them.

Far better, I think, to embrace the inevitable with brio. Something very much like the narrator and subject of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67). His hilarious digressions—on his uncle’s obsessions with siege warfare, his father’s theories of how a name and the size of one’s nose determine character and destiny—delay the promised subject of the story (and his own birth) for hundreds of pages. The novel opens with his mother’s interrupting the act of conception to ask his father if he has remembered to wind the clock; everything that follows seems designed partly to arrest time and to keep death, lurking everywhere, at bay.

Still, it’s hard to shake the association between literacy and senescence.

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